Monday, February 16, 2015


Often, I notice that writers talk about how much they love learning new words. While I admire this enjoyment of learning and I am fully in favor of the written word in general, I have to confess that I am not one of these writers. While I'm reading, I don't jot down or make mental note of or put stars by words I don't know (unless they truly confuse the content). I don't casually try out new words in conversation. I don't care for words that the average person doesn't know; I dislike abstract, long, floaty, complicated words; I would really, really rather not have anything that comes out of my mouth make people go "Ohhhh, she's an English major."

I love words that speak for themselves. Earthy, humble, pronounceable words that look or feel or sound or taste like something. Short, direct nouns and verbs (and sometimes adjectives). I love writing that is packed with words so solid and savory it's like eating a meal.

All this said, my vocabulary is limited, and it gets in the way of my writing. There are only so many times I can put oceans, palm trees, dirt, wind, water, night, or sun into poems (especially if I'm thinking in terms of putting together a collection someday). Every word in a poem has to be there for a reason. It has to be crafted just like any other piece of art to make the reader feel something real, and it helps if you have plenty of materials to select from.

So, I am working on expanding my vocabulary, and it's kind of fun. By "expanding," really I mean working to have a wider variety of words come to mind more easily. In a practical sense, here are a couple exercises I have been enjoying:

I recently read Suji Kwock Kim's Notes from the Divided Country, a pretty intense book of poetry mostly about war tragedies, and I fell in love with just about every word she used (though even she overuses a couple words--"blood," for one, which I suppose is unavoidable). So after I read a poem, I'd go back and write down the words that stood out to me. Most were words I already knew, but a few I did have to look up, though--and this is important--not knowing them didn't hurt the reading of the poem one bit. Here's a sampling:

root-rot (made-up hyphenated words are great too)

I would feel pretty comfortable using any of these in my own writing, and having them written down is like having a palette ready with all different hues, tints, tones.

A second activity that helps me with words is shamelessly searching for them on For a poem yesterday, I spent maybe half an hour plugging words into the search bar to figure out how to best describe the stench of a decaying animal (a few possibilities are sour, overripe, breakers, stalk, pummel, and swell, though so far they haven't come together into the right image/sentence combo). And (sorry, this is graphic), over time the words "fleshy holes" in the poem morphed to "syrupy marshes" to describe areas where the creature is rotting away. (It may seem like my poetry is morbid and weird, but I promise it is mostly not.)

So, words. That's what I have to say about that.